Call it what you will: energy, inspiration, magic, but The Little Mermaid truly is the first film in decades that possesses the intangible power of Disney's greatest works. While it would be unfair to dismiss the previous half dozen films for not trying hard enough--that would be cruel to the legion of animators, writers, and actors that worked on these pictures--The Little Mermaid feels richer in every conceivable way. Every detail in the film, no matter how great or small, shows the direct effects of conscious and thoughtful effort. The one clear, decisive element that separates The Little Mermaid from its immediate predecessors is money. The studio threw the ample dividends of their coffers into the film and it shows.
This might be a bit of a projection but one can feel the shift in quality from the film's very first frame. The story opens on the cloudy skies above the sea as three gulls burst into view. The confluence of elements in the shot, showing the layered textures of the sky and a perceptible depth of field as the birds break through the clouds, is reminiscent of the dense forests depicted in Bambi and a startling contrast to the flat cityscape of Oliver and Company. Soon the screen fills with a hulking ship crashing through the waves, its weight evident and believable. There is a care in the craft here, a refined construction in the animation that makes the world that much more tactile. This effort continues throughout the feature and is apparent in such subtle effects as the air bubbles that drift along with the movement of each and every sea creature.
While it bears the familiar trappings of the studio's vaunted princess stories, The Little Mermaid is special in many ways. For one, it is the first animated film in the studio's history to truly be a Musical with a capital M. Certainly many of the hallmarked classics contain timeless songs and even the first, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, contains several songs sung by the protagonists, but The Little Mermaid puts the musical numbers front and center in the picture. Nary five minutes will separate a rousing song-and-dance routine from its successor. And what a wonderful score the animators and actors had to work with. The songwriting duo of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken deliver a series of indelible, witty tunes that burrow into one's skull and remain for a lifetime. While the repeated theme "Part of Your World" strays a bit too much into over-the-top Broadway territory for this viewer, there are numerous numbers that weave an indelible and undeniable magical musical spell. The two best songs are sung by the Jamaican crustacean Sebastian. The iconic "Under the Sea" is a joyous, shoe-tapping extravaganza with choice lines like "when the sardine begin the beguine", while the slow jam "Kiss the Girl" is paired with absolutely exquisite animation to create one of the most romantic scenes in the studio's history.
The central romance between the titular mermaid Ariel and Prince Eric is the most problematic part of the film. Detractors will note that our very headstrong, adventurous and curious female protagonist is willing to give up her voice forever just to settle down with a handsome but rather bland man. It is a bit unsettling seeing a mute Ariel trying desperately to secure a kiss to snare her man, apparently her only goal in life. The fact that she would be so willing to leave not only her ocean home but her very species behind to be with some dude she saw playing a flute for two minutes is rather insulting. Thorny feminist criticisms aside, the actual depiction of this blossoming romance is handled exquisitely by the filmmakers. Long before the aforementioned "Kiss the Girl" scene, we get the magnificent moment of Eric's first glimpse of Ariel after she rescues him from the hurricane-roiled sea. The shot is from Eric's point of view as he opens his eyes to see a gorgeous woman backlit by the glow of dawn, singing to him. The shot is beautifully composed and is reminiscent of Jimmy Stewart's glorious Grace Kelly awakening in Rear Window.
While Ariel is frustrating for her plucky promise and subsequent failure to retain it, and Eric, with nary a personality trait to distinguish him, is a direct descendant of the faceless vanilla lineage that is the Disney prince, the secondary characters are all splendid. The aforementioned Sebastian is a small crab with an outsized ego who thinks everything can be achieved with a song, while Ariel's fish friend Flounder is a meek but loyal companion. Buddy Hackett provides the voice for the misguided gull Scuttle who entrances Ariel with his incorrect descriptions and depictions of the human world. But the best character in the film is, as is often the case, the villain. The vampy sea witch Ursula commands the picture with a sinister cynicism and bombastic energy. Her musical showcase "Poor Unfortunate Souls" is a phenomenal set piece that sees her conniving and concocting, ultimately extracting Ariel's voice and weaving the mermaid into a cosmic golden bubble. Ursula is so overwhelming that by the climax she literally grows into a gigantic sea monster dwarfing Eric's ship that will ultimately impale her. She is a worthy successor to Maleficent in the line of Disney villains.
The Little Mermaid renewed Disney's contract with the public, showing them that the sixty-year-old studio was still capable of creating fantastic entertainments that blended the best animation with crackerjack storytelling, lovable characters, and beautiful songs. The public responded in kind, accepting the film with rabid fervor and open arms. The Little Mermaid is now regarded as a turning point, where the studio could finally step out of the hesitant uncertainty that plagued their productions in the two decades following Walt's death. Ironically, in doing so they finally got back some of that potent Disney magic. What makes The Little Mermaid such a success is that one can feel the expectations of the past coursing around inside it, along with the toil, the will, and the methodical care that went into creating the picture; and yet the film flows with a grace that makes these concerns feel like nothing more than waves lapping lazily along a beach.